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The Virginia Senate. (2020 File Photo by Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

After past cycles of redistribution of districts, the number of members of the Virginia General Assembly who had to change districts was kept to a minimum, as lawmakers were allowed to draw careful lines around each other’s homes to avoid harming incumbents .

That wasn’t the case last year, when experts appointed by the Virginia Supreme Court effectively rolled back the state’s legislative maps with little care to ensure incumbents remain comfortably installed in conflict-free seats. That means an unusually large number of lawmakers are faced with the prospect of positioning themselves for the next election cycle.

These cards also bring new attention to a little-known provision in the Virginia Constitution that says any delegate or senator who leaves his current district to run in a new one is automatically out of office. But lawmakers must also prove residency in the new counties to qualify as valid candidates, a process that occurs well before the end of the current legislative session.

With the electoral landscape still taking shape for the 2023 high-stakes General Assembly election, with all 140 state legislative seats up for election, there have not yet been any residency challenges. Still, the question of how the constitutional rule might affect the legislature next year is already being mutedly debated in the Capitol.

“I think that makes some people nervous,” Del said. Mark Sickles, D-Fairfax.

After the new maps approved last year, half of the state’s 40 senators were moved to a district with one or more other senators, according to the Virginia Public Access Project’s analysis. In the House, 44 out of 100 delegates were paired with at least one colleague. Some of those pairings have already been resolved, in part because the maps also created dozens of new unincumbent districts. Legislators paired with each other have a few basic options: campaign head-to-head with a colleague, resign, or run for another seat.

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Due to uncertainty about which specific members the rule might affect, some lawmakers and advisers seemed reluctant to speak openly about the issue.

“I’m just saying I’m aware of it,” House Speaker Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah, said with a smile in a brief interview in the House of Representatives earlier this month.

The issue has also been brought up in meetings of the Democratic Senate, as members should know how to plan for the next year.

Unlike members of Congress, members of the Virginia General Assembly must reside in the districts they serve or represent. And the state constitution is clear about what happens when someone moves out of their district.

“A senator or delegate who relocates from the district for which he was elected is thereby vacating office,” reads the key section.

That rule came into play in 2015 when the then-Del. Joe Morrissey filed paperwork to run for the Senate, which listed an address in Richmond outside of his district in Henrico County. At the time, Morrissey, now a state senator, agreed to step down from his previous office and allow a special election, but said he would continue to serve his constituents in an unofficial capacity from his law office.

Over the next six months, an erroneous move by a lawmaker or a premeditated decision to step down early could have a similar impact. Significantly, an empty seat could elude a political caucus in the 2023 legislative session, even if the person who vacated it might win and return from another district in 2024.

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There will be no problem for General Assembly members who relocate to stand for election in a new district without leaving their current district. For example, since Charlottesville is part of the area he now represents, Democratic Senator Creigh Deeds may move from rural Bath County to Charlottesville to run in a newly drawn district.

“They just have to move to an overlapping territory,” said Jeff Ryer, a longtime Senate GOP adviser. “And I can’t recall any instance where there wasn’t an overlapping area.”

The new districts for 2023 are strikingly different from what they were thanks to the new district reform amendment that Virginia voters approved in 2020. The revised new district process resulted in maps being drawn by court-appointed experts instead of incumbent legislators, who distinguished themselves by maintaining the status quo as much as possible.

It’s difficult to keep track of which lawmakers live where at any given time, since General Assembly members don’t have to submit that information in real time. The full scope of the reshuffle may not become clear until next spring, when General Assembly candidates must submit campaign documents listing a district address that matches their voter registration records. That deadline usually falls in late March, after the General Assembly has concluded its regular session, but before the legislature reconvenes to incorporate vetoes and amendments from the governor.

“You may have some people who need to decide how much you really need me on recall,” Del said. Marcus Simon, D-Fairfax.

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Although the law is fairly clear, controversies over politicians’ residency are often overshadowed by ambiguity. Legislators may have multiple residences, and it can be difficult to determine if an address listed on official records is where they spend most of their time.

According to the Richmond Times-Dispatch, questions were raised last year as to whether Republican candidate Mark Earley Jr. really lived in the Richmond-area home district where he ran into paperwork errors by not having the home he owned outside the district disclosed when he moved in with his parents to run for the seat.

Mandatory financial disclosure forms, which members of the general assembly are required to file each year, require lawmakers to disclose real estate holdings, but they do not have to report their “principal residence.” The forms, which are overseen by the Virginia Conflict of Interest and Ethics Advisory Council, also advise elected state and local officials not to provide exact addresses for their real estate holdings. However, this information can usually be obtained by researching local property records.

The two secretaries of the General Assembly oversee the administrative side of the legislature and keep records of MPs’ private mailing addresses. But there’s nothing that obliges lawmakers to notify employees when they move. And the lists kept by the employees are not published.

“It counts as a personnel file,” said domestic worker G. Paul Nardo.

by Graham Moomaw, Virginia Mercury


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